Developers offer opposing plans for historic Fruit Belt property - The Buffalo News
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Developers offer opposing plans for historic Fruit Belt property

After helping restore the dome of Buffalo’s Botanical Gardens, the historic Nash House off Michigan Avenue and the windows at the King Urban Center on Genesee Street, John Gulick turned his attention to a century-and-a-half-old brick house on High Street.

He contacted the city’s Real Estate office, sometime in late 2009 or early 2010, saying he was interested in restoring the city-owned property at 204 High St. to the grandeur of its heyday.

“They said, ‘Send me a proposal. Show us what you want to do,’ ” Gulick recalled.

So Gulick took an architect through the 5,400-square-foot building and then sent the city a formal proposal.

About six months later, sometime in 2012, Gulick recalled, the city told him the property wasn’t available.

“They said someone had been given designated developer status,” he said.

The developer is the Rev. Michael Chapman, pastor of St. John Baptist Church, and he now wants to demolish the dilapidated Civil War era house and put a food market and parking lot on the site.

Gulick remains interested in saving and restoring the 1865 building.

“It’s completely restorable,” Gulick said. “We can make it beautiful. It would be a shame to lose it.”

While Gulick’s encounter with City Hall has fueled a debate on what should be done with the High Street building, it also raises questions about whether Chapman – pastor of the city’s largest African-American church – has received favored treatment in City Hall.

Chapman denies that, saying the church’s Fruit Belt Community Development Corp. has been the primary developer willing to work in the Fruit Belt for years and has followed all city procedures during the more than two years it’s been working on the market project.

“We asked for the property over two years ago,” he said. “We submitted an application. We got an appraisal to the city. We hired an architect. We have spent $150,000 so far.”

City officials also deny any favoritism.

“The City of Buffalo placed 204 High on hold for St. John Fruit Belt CDC after it applied for the property in 2011,” said Brendan R. Mehaffy, executive director of the city’s Office of Strategic Planning. “The project was a component of a larger community redevelopment plan by St. John that included residential and commercial development.

“Since 2011,” Mehaffy added, “St. John Fruit Belt CDC has invested its time and money working on securing financing for the project and conducting due diligence on the property.”

But The Buffalo News obtained a 2011 email between City Hall and a community activist indicating Chapman has been given preferential status in the Fruit Belt. The email describes Chapman as a “designated developer,” a title that typically is the city’s promise to work with a developer, make city-owned property available, and provide funding support if possible.

Chapman, however, does not have formal designated developer status throughout the Fruit Belt. That would require Common Council approval. Instead, the pastor was given what’s been described as informal designated developer status that started in the Masiello administration, when virtually no one else was interested in working in the Fruit Belt. Some in City Hall – and also some affiliated with the Fruit Belt Corp. – privately say the informal designation carried over into the Brown administration.

“I just spoke to a key member of St. John’s development organization,” the City Hall staffer wrote in the 2011 email about 204 High St. “At this point they are not willing to relinquish the property to an outside developer, choosing to instead exercise their Designated Developer Status in the Fruit Belt …”

The pastor-developer

Chapman’s St. John development agency proposes a $1.7 million grocery with a cafe and pharmacy at Maple and High streets, at the edge of the Fruit Belt, just a block from the eastern border of the medical campus.

The 5,000-square foot grocery/pharmacy/cafe and parking lot would be built on a vacant parcel the Fruit Belt Development Corp. owns at 190 High St., and on an adjoining city-owned property at 204 High St. that the corporation plans to purchase from the city. The 1865 brick building is located on the city-owned land.

Chapman said the corporation anticipated paying about $60,000 for the less than half an acre of city property, but a recent appraisal came in at $204,000.

The appraisal assumes the property is vacant, with no building on it, said Daria L. Pratcher, attorney for the Fruit Belt corporation.

Demolition of the 1865 brick house is expected to cost about $100,000, Chapman said.

The Fruit Belt Corp. budgeted the demolition costs, but when the land appraisal came in so much higher than expected – possibly reflecting increasing land values close to the medical campus – the corporation asked the city if it would consider demolishing the building, Pratcher said.

The Buffalo News earlier in the week quoted Chapman as saying the city would demolish the building before selling the property. But Chapman subsequently told The News that he meant to say he hopes the city will do the demolition.

The city has not said yet whether it will raze the building, he said.

The Fruit Belt corporation’s original plan was to incorporate the brick building into the grocery, he said, but the cost was prohibitive.

“It’s in deplorable condition,” Chapman said of the 1865 house. “That building is a hazard. Bricks are falling. They are using it as a drug haven.”

Chapman said he was unaware that Gulick was interested in purchasing and restoring the building at 204 High.

Would he consider working with Gulick on a combined project to restore the house and create a market?

“We would have to look at the plan. I don’t know,” Chapman initially said, but then appeared to indicate that wasn’t a good idea.

“I am not waiting around for someone to put a plan together,” he continued. “I don’t know who the person is, but I’ve been around Buffalo for a long time. People do a lot of talking. I’m not sitting around to talk with anyone. All I’m trying to do is get something done. If the man is serious, tell him to put up the money.”

The restorer

Gulick owns J.A. Gulick Window Co. and is a former partner with Infinity Glass and Restoration, which worked on the King Urban Life Center, the Hayes Hall Bell tower and dome at the Botanical Gardens.

Since going out on his own, Gulick purchased and then restored the former Christiano’s Bakery building on Niagara Street in Buffalo.

It was while working at the King Urban Life Center, Gulick said, that he first noticed the brick building on High Street, as he was driving past it to and from work every day.

In late 2009 or early 2010, Gulick said, he was financially secure and had some extra time, so decided to inquire about purchasing and restoring the building.

“I’m at a point in my career, I can pull these projects together,” Gulick said.

Gulick estimated the building could be restored for about $400,000. But he seemed taken by surprise when told Chapman said the land was appraised at $204,000.

A land price that high could make the restoration less financially feasible, Gulick said, but he also questioned if the $204,000 figure is accurate and if it would be lower if appraised with the existing building there.

He also said grant money might be available to offset some of the cost, particularly if the project has historical landmark status.

The house

The brick Italianate structure is one of the oldest in the Fruit Belt, according to Preservation Buffalo Niagara, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving Western New York’s historic sites and structures.

The building does not currently have historical landmark status but was evaluated by the state Historic Preservation Office in 2011 and determined to be eligible, Preservation Buffalo Niagara said in a statement released Friday.

The organization said it would like to see the building nominated for landmark status. Such designation could protect the building from demolition.

The house is actually two homes – one at 204 High and another at 291 Maple – joined together in 1890 through a small addition, according to Preservation Buffalo Niagara.

The combined structure was the home of John Meidenbauer, a doctor and instructor at the University of Buffalo’s College of Pharmacy. The Maple Street part of the house also served as Meidenbauer’s medical office, Preservation Buffalo said.

The combined house was later sold to another doctor, Lyle Morgan, who lived with his wife and children in one part of the home from the late 1930s through the 1960s, and practiced medicine in the other section from 1940 until his retirement about 50 years later, according to one of his sons, David Morgan.

After Lyle Morgan died, the house was left to one of his sons, who was unable to keep up with taxes on the building, and the city took it about 2005.

Competing ideas

Gulick said his tour of the building about three years ago found original woodwork, floors, windows and doors.

“It’s run down,” he said. “There are some structural things that need to happen, but that goes with the territory. The building has good bones.”

To Chapman, however, the issue is about serving the Fruit Belt community. He described the Fruit Belt as a “food desert” that needs a market offering fresh produce.

What’s more, he said, the market project offers economic opportunity to young people. The grocery, he said, will provide 40 part-time jobs.

“I got young folks I am training on how to start a business,” he said.

Given that, Chapman said, he wants to keep the market project on course.

“Remember, whatever you put in there,” Chapman said, referring to The Buffalo News, “make sure you say pastor said God is with him.”


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